My friend Snow of Cibear Fhoraois Sneachta recently sent this YouTube video from Cabra Woodwell of Steel City Witch to me.
Snow and I have had conversations in the past about what qualifies as witchcraft, both historically and currently. It’s a slippery word, and Woodwell pins down precisely why:
1) the definition is founded on taboos, and
2) taboos are cultural and therefore variable.
Who is a witch and what witchcraft is depend very much on who and where you ask the question. They do a great job of also breaking down other terms like sorcerer, cunning person, and magician as well in an easily understood and accurate graph. It’s a great video.
One point Woodwell made that I think is really outstanding is that, in the United States – and likely in some European countries as well – the use of magic in any form, for any reason, is generally considered witchcraft. It’s a point I’ve made myself in conversations about witchcraft before. In the United States, magic itself is taboo, and utilizing it for any reason is a transgression. This isn’t the case in other places around the world, and it’s something that I think is important to understand when we talk about witchcraft in America. I think it’s also something that is shifting, slowly but surely, as the practice of magic continues to move into the mainstream. If mainstream culture accepts magical work as an acceptable, if quirky or niche, practice, it will no longer be taboo, and we will have to redefine what witchcraft is in our culture.
Something else that I’ve been thinking about – and Woodwell alludes to this briefly in their tangential discussion about Protestant Christian views – is that this country is still extremely diverse. While we can make generalizations, we really can’t firmly define what is and isn’t witchcraft for America as a whole. Regions of our country vary dramatically regarding cultural norms, and different communities with different cultural origins within these regions will also vary. For example, I live in South Central Appalachia, and I’m a (mostly) Scots-Irish settler here within a Scots-Irish majority culture. While a lot of our older traditions have been dying out, every now and then I’ll still hear someone mention how their grandfather could talk fire out of a burn, or their grandmother was a “granny” who knew the “Old Ways” and would recite Psalms while rubbing on a poultice or salve to cure illness, or how someone could use divining rods to locate a subterranean spring for a well or had luck by carrying around fairy stones.
These things, for people outside of my region, especially if they’re white and either atheist or mainstream Protestant Christian, sound like witchcraft. But here, most people won’t see it that way. These are mystical acts – even a little bit spooky – but they are still well within the confines of our cultural taboos. If it involves the Bible or invokes the assistance of the Trinity or other spirits acknowledged as holy within the Christian framework (such as saints and angels), taboos are kept. It isn’t witchcraft, even to white Southern Protestants.
Witchcraft around here could be defined as a magical act that engages spirits not perceived as holy by the Christian overculture, or otherwise the use of inner, personal power to effect change in the world. In other words, witchcraft is doing magical or mystical work without the involvement or permission of the Trinity, angels, or saints. Activities like divination with the Tarot are iffy, but you’ll find plenty of people who do Tarot and consider themselves psychics or mediums, not witches, and the public is generally accepting of that identification. Many of these psychics and mediums view their source of divination as angels or other Christian holy spirits, placing them well within the category of cunning folk or Christian lay mystics.
Again, even this definition is changing. For example, something like a self-love tea – combining the use of herbs with nonreligious magical phrases or poetry, or simple focused thought (i.e. “intentions”) – have become more mainstream. We often refer to these types of benign, irreligious magical practices as “New Age”: magical practices utilizing herbs, crystals, and intentions (whether verbalized or not), without engaging spirits. While these acts would have definitely been considered witchcraft just a few decades ago, they are now viewed more as not-witchcraft, or natural magic. And this is because they don’t transgress the taboo of engagement with (non-Christian) spirits. They are spirit-free and therefore taboo-keeping.
So, in my regional culture, I’m a witch because I engage with spirits outside the Christian framework: Pagan Gods, the dead, nature spirits, and others. I’m a witch because I utilize my personal, innate power – often with the help of the above spirits – to cause change in the world to my and others’ benefit. And, along Woodwell’s y-axis, I do these things using easily accessible, simple materials, trance, and straightforward language in my native tongue. It’s inexpensive, everyday, yet taboo magic.
There’s another layer to this as well. I’m a locally-focused Celto-Germanic polytheist, and I’m a member of a few Pagan and Heathen online communities. In these religious communities, I’m still considered a witch, even though many other non-witch members will do things that Christians may consider witchcraft, such as divination with their Pagan and Heathen divine spirits, donning luck-bearing charms associated with their Gods, and communication with the dead and nature spirits. In these communities, witchcraft is defined differently.
It seems to me that witchcraft in Pagan, Heathen, and other Western polytheist spheres is defined as anything that harnesses mystical forces to effect change in the world beyond petitions to the Gods or ancestors – that is, anything outside of prayer, divination, and service to spirits. The taboo here is personal agency and the presumption to take matters into one’s own power, rather than submitting to the will of the Gods. It transgresses a belief in a natural hierarchy.
My fiance, Marc of Of Axe and Plough, asked when he read the first draft of this post, “What about those of us who don’t necessarily view divine relationships as hierarchical and more mutual?” That is, what if magic is a force that is free to use, not just for divine spirits, and exchanged among all things with the agency to wield it? It seems that the taboo narrows even further, as does the definition of witchcraft. It might be something like the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Harm-causing magic would be witchcraft from this perspective, which is popular among many magic-workers. Curses and hexes. Maleficium. Admittedly, I’ve done a little bit of that when I felt it was necessary – to prevent someone from causing harm, to protect others or myself – and there wasn’t a more effective recourse. While some might see this as justifiable (I certainly do), the fact is that it is still witchcraft because it caused harm or worked on others without their consent, breaking the taboo.
I’m a witch because I transgress taboos: that of my regional culture, by being a magic-working Pagan; that of my religious culture, by (re)working subtle, nonphysical powers with and to my own will for my and others’ benefit; and even that of other magic-workers, by being willing to hex and curse. I don’t mind the term “witch.” I don’t mind it being morally gray and challenging; I don’t mind it being, like nature, “red in tooth and claw”; and I’m quite proud of its more humble, earthy approach to magic work because I know that magic lies in everything, not just exotic, arcane tools and symbols. I’m very independent, and I’m not afraid to challenge and go against the moral grain, however much I aim to live according to my own values and ethics, to be my own definition of “good.” And I think that is what’s at the heart of every witch: fierce independence – even contrariness – and a courageous, curiosity-fueled, caprine willingness to test, push, and transcend boundaries, using our own will and whatever tools we have at hand.